Film Review: In Insightful “The Square,” the Emperor Has Beautiful, if Ephemeral, Clothes

Film poster: “The Square”

The Square (Ruben Östlund, 2017) 3½ out of 4 stars.*

Anyone who saw Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s 2014 Force Majeure is aware of his interest in dissecting systems of behavior within hierarchies. There, he examined spousal and parental dynamics in a film about what happens when a father abandons his family in the middle of an avalanche. In The Square (winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival), he takes on even larger issues of class, wealth and power in a story set against the backdrop of the contemporary high-end art world. Does the emperor have any clothes, he muses, and would you wear them if you could?

Danish actor Claes Bang (Rettet Raffi!) – who looks and sounds a bit like an intellectual Pierce Brosnan – plays Christian, chief curator of the fictional X-Royal art museum in Stockholm, Sweden. He lives the high life, drives a Tesla, and rules over the aesthetic tastes of not just those in his employ, but the entire city, country, and even beyond. As if to emphasize his power, the museum is located on one side of an old palace. Charming, sophisticated, and very self-absorbed, Christian is on top of the world, secure in his kingdom.

Claes Bang as Christian in Ruben Ostend’s “The Square” ©Magnolia Pictures

Until, that is, he becomes the victim of a seemingly trivial crime. How he responds – the consequences of poor decisions made from the arrogant recesses of his privilege – leads to an eventual unraveling that simultaneously reveals both the limits and limitlessness of that privilege. Along the way, we encounter a journalist with a pet chimpanzee, a conceptual artist who takes his performance-as-gorilla a little too far (there’s something about apes and hierarchy), and clueless ad executives who think nothing of blowing up a child on camera to gain viral notoriety. The rich – or those who aspire to be so – really are different than you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote.

Elisabeth Moss as Anne in Ruben Ostend’s “The Square” ©Magnolia Pictures

This is really Bang’s film, and he carries it beautifully on his very capable shoulders. He is so charismatic that it is difficult not to root for him. Plus, he never does anything so horrible beyond not caring as much about others as he does about himself. But yes, karma is a nasty dance partner. There are other fine actors here, however, including the great Elisabeth Moss (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale), as that journalist with the chimp. She and Bang (pun, apparently, intended) engage in one of the funniest and most dispiriting sex scenes I have ever seen. Also in the ensemble is Dominic West (McNulty in HBO’s The Wire), in a small part as a painter, and Terry Notary (movement choreographer on Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes) as the out-of-control artist-cum-ape (magnificent in that part). The total is very much the sum of its terrific parts, although the film could, in all honesty, be a little shorter.

And what is the titular “square”? It’s a new exhibit put on by the museum, with the tagline “the square is a sanctuary of trust and caring.” As it turns out, it is anything but, filled with empty rhetoric and naked emperors. Naked or not, however, that emperor’s invisible suit is cut of the finest cloth.

Terry Notary as Oleg in Ruben Ostend’s “The Square” ©Magnolia Pictures

*[I previously wrote a capsule review of this film in my coverage of the 2o17 Middleburg Film Festival.]

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice."
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